Mechanics Monday: Time for a clue

A little in joke for my team

A little in joke for my team

For the first time ever I think I’ve got a genuine Mechanics Monday (based on the original definition)! But I’ll let you be the judge.

All escape games include both a clock and a hint system of some kind (sometimes one and the same). The way it is implemented varies from operator to operator, and includes VDUs, walkie-talkies, notes being slid under the door, and the grossly unpopular ‘invite the gamemaster into the room to help you’. The common factor in all these systems is that they’re seen as part of the facility, not part of the room. My question is why aren’t they built into the theme and/or story of each individual game?

Let’s think about theme first. If you’re in a top secret research centre or on a spaceship (futuristic zone) it would make sense to have computer screens that could relay the information without breaking the mood. But if you’re in a castle (medieval) or pharaoh’s tomb (aztec) then computers haven’t been invented yet, so your time should be kept by an hourglass, and maybe hints are given on paper (or audibly, by ‘the gods’). If you’re a police detective obviously you’d have been given a walkie-talkie that might have a clock on it (or there could be a normal clock (as opposed to a timer) conveniently in the room). If you’re a spy presumably you’d have some sort of secret in-ear device (or the hygienic version thereof) and your gadget-watch. The point is there’s no anachronisms or solecisms that break the beautiful aesthetic of your room.

Story is a bit more challenging, but I think still possible. If you’re a spy then some new intel can come to light which your handler is relaying. If you’re a detective the Chief or colleague can pass on their recent discovery. If you’re locked in a room by a rogue AI someone may be trying to ‘hack in’ to provide you with guidance (with appropriate static/disturbance to boot). If you’re a prisoner the wily old inmate can be looking out for you and passing notes.

And of course there’s no reason it couldn’t be both.

As with most things, there’s slightly more onus on the gamemaster to play in character, but surely nothing more challenging than being nice to a customer you don’t like. And I think the added immersion would be more than worth it.

Would you like to see the clock and hint system built into the theme, or are you happy with them as a reminder of the outside world?


  1. I always liked the idea of in-game hints coming in like that. ^_^ I’m all for it!

  2. IIRC Cluequest in London does make use of walkie talkies, and the game host talks in terms of being back at HQ and offering help. Since it’s spy themed, that seems reasonably in character I don’t think they said anything like “we’ve just had new information” or similar, but I did their rooms a while back. I definitely like the idea of clues coming in theme, and I do find the historic escape rooms with digital clocks somewhat jarring. The clock is an interesting one though – you could probably get a pretty good analogue clock, but if you’re going back to Egyptian time, then a sand timer (assuming available in that period), would make things interesting in terms of accuracy…

  3. You can get an hourglass timed out pretty accurately, but we try to limit the amount of glass we have in our games. We have one glass jar, but it retails for about 15 bucks. It’s not financially devastating if it breaks. Hourglasses, especially beautiful ones, can cost a pretty penny, and – as with any prop – you’re risking an expensive replacement if players drop it, or decide to tear it apart like monkeys at the drive-thru safari.

    With an Egyptian theme, we’d probably rig up something with a remote-controlled light and a sun dial, so that players know that when the sun dial shadow reaches *this mark*, the game is over. What’s nice about that is that you can get robotic control over the angle of the light, and you can pause the timer if you need to. An hourglass is perilous because you probably can’t remotely pause the game, reverse time, or add time.

    When we were developing our first experience, we did a lot of research into digital clock displays, but our early playtesters were divided on whether or not they liked their game being timed so glaringly. We opted instead for an audio “clock.”

    – Ryan, LockQuest KeyMaster

  4. My knowledge of Egyptian time keeping is limited. A digitally controlled sun dial does sound awesome though.

    With any of these things I’d allow some amendments, i.e. markings on the glass/container which said how long was left. Of course in the original Aztec zone (I’m talking Crystal Maze again for those of you looking confused) they had a water clock, but I’d suggest this is even less practical than an hourglass.

    None of the games I’ve played allowed for any sort of ‘time adjustment’ as described. So that’s a whole other thing to think about!

  5. Hi there,
    I know Ive asked you before to come and play, but our clue systems do exactly this in our rooms and fit the periods EXACTLY and are completely emmersive. As an escape room addict myself I was very conscious of the faux pas of escape rooms

    I would love you to come and visit if you can find the time to see for yourself


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